Streamlining runoffs

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
May 21, 1998, San Diego Daily Transcript

 Watching the governor's race in California has become quasi-farcical, like watching TV wrestling with its bombast of sneers, dirty tricks and "no-holds" barred tag teams. It reduces the dignity of the office and alienates voters, which is unfortunate because it doesn't have to be that way. There is a simple way to clean up the worst of the mud-slinging -- adopt instant runoff voting.

Currently, the candidate from each political party with the most votes June 2 advances to the general election in November. For the Democrat contested primary, a candidate like Al Checchi knows he can win as much by driving voters away from his Democrat opponents Jane Harman and Gray Davis as by increasing his own vote totals. Candidates Harman and Davis arm themselves to respond in kind, and not surprisingly we are witnessing full-scale  assault via the airwaves. The dynamic fuels negative campaigning and depresses  voter turnout.

But Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) changes the calculation. Rather than providing incentive to drive away voters from your opponents, IRV provides incentive to reach out to supporters of your opponents, and even encouraging candidates to build coalitions with each other. Here's how it works.

Instead of voting for one candidate June 2, voters would be asked to rank several candidates in their order of preference. So voters would rank their favorite candidate as their No. 1 choice, their second favorite as their No. 2 choice, up to three choices.

Election administrators would count first choices and for those party primaries that are contested eliminate the candidate with the least first-choice support. The ballots of the eliminated candidate would be transferred to the candidate ranked next on each voter's ballot. This process would be repeated until there was only one candidate left for each party, and those candidates would be declared the nominees for the general  election. It's like conducting a runoff (hence, the name "instant runoff") but it's  done with only one trip to the polls.

For example, after first-choice ballots of all voters are counted, suppose that the order of finish was: 1. Checchi  2. Davis  3. Harman. The way it works now, Checchi would be declared the winner. But Checchi may not have a majority of the vote. In fact, he may not even be preferred by the most voters, but may simply have stronger core support than his opponents.

But with IRV, third-place finisher Harman would be eliminated, and instead of Harman's supporters having wasted their vote on a losing candidate, they can give their vote to their second choice. Suppose a Harman voter ranked her or his ballot like so: Jane Harman No. 1,  Gray Davis No. 3, and Al Checchi No. 3. That Harman voter would be  giving his vote to Gray Davis. Which remaining candidate will receive the  most support from Harman voters -- Checchi or Davis?

Herein lies the beauty of IRV: candidates Checchi and Davis will have to woo the supporters of Harman during the campaign if they expect any transfer votes from Harman supporters. Instead of attacking Harman, which the current "highest vote-getter" method actually rewards, IRV will encourage candidates to find common ground and build bridges to entice more voters their way. In a race as close as the Democrats, it would be smart for all the candidates to woo the voters of their opponents. That would promote positive, issue-oriented campaigning, instead of the current bombardment of mudslinging.

Also, with IRV the nominee will be the candidate that has the support of the most voters, with a combination of core support and general appeal. Right now, the nominee is more likely to be the candidate that has the strongest and narrowest cadre of supporters, regardless of whether they have broad support. In a three-way race, the current method allows someone to win with as little as 34 percent support, which allows a candidate to win despite  opposition from most voters. This is particularly important in a party primary,  because the nominee will need the votes from losing candidates' supporters to win  in the general election.

Some may object that Instant Runoff Voting sounds too complicated. But the role for the voter is simple: They rank as many as three of their favorite candidates. It's as easy as 1, 2, 3. People already are used to ranking their favorite sports teams and movies, so they should be able to handle this task. In fact, the Republic of Ireland and the Australian Senate have elected their winners by this method for years. School children  in these countries use IRV, so how complicated can it be? The Academy  Awards also have selected the final candidates by using a similar ranking  system for many years.

IRV is a modest change, but it could well result in more positive, issue-oriented campaigns, and less disgusted voters. That's a win-win. Campaigns shouldn't be driven by expensive and negative TV ads. Using IRV, we might restore some dignity to our electoral contests.  


Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems.  Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director.  

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